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MLS 3.0: Spend or be spent?

As clubs in MLS continue to increase spending, what does that mean for "smaller market" clubs like the Rapids in the fabled MLS 3.0?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS International Transfer window closed last week with a number of deals that happened, and perhaps even bigger deals that didn't happen. Some clubs showed a willingness to spend (Houston, Philadelphia) while others produced little or no activity (Vancouver).

The international transfer window is only one of the opportunities clubs have to spend during a season, however, with many using the winter transfer to strut their monetary prowess. And we could see more major moves yet, as the roster freeze for 2014 isn't until September 15th. What makes this season's transfer activity is that it could change significantly as soon as 2015.

But before we get to the future, let's focus on what the league currently looks like it terms of spending. Earlier this year, Stat Hunting came out with a nice visualization of MLS salaries based on the information released by the players union. Granted, the figures aren't exact and omit a number of key factors, but it's a decent outlook for how clubs spend relative to each other. (Take note of where the Rapids are on this list, as we'll discuss this more later.)

You'll notice that there are some big spenders in the top five or so, and then there is a gradual decrease among the remaining clubs. Some of these clubs will have increased their positions based on the transactions that have taken place since April, while others (most likely the Rapids--losing Chavez, Sturgis) will have dropped. Does this spending play a huge role in how these teams perform on the field?

Another analysis from Stat Hunting says no. Anyone familiar with MLS knows that one of the thrills (or in some cases frustrations) of this league is that anyone can, and will, beat anyone else on any given week. The Rapids 2010 MLS Cup championship is a perfect example of this parity, as Colorado was one of the last seeds in the playoffs (and the EASTERN conference champions) It is a stark contrast from the other behemoth leagues around the world where the big spenders more often than not, win it all.

This is where the future of MLS comes into play. The end of this season will see the players and league officials meet to create a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There's no telling what will come from a new CBA, but some of the possibilities include an increase in salary cap and changes in player acquisition.

Did you read the part in Alexi Lalas' tweet above where he says "not the ones whose clubs can't compete because of money, geography, culture, etc? That would be those clubs in the bottom of the spending list, and yes, that includes the Rapids.

Things won't be made easier with new blood coming into the league next year either. 2015 will mark the first year for new clubs, Orlando City and New York City FC. Both these clubs have already showed they're big spenders with the acquisitions of David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaká. Even their rumored signings are huge like Xavi and Robinho. That's two more teams likely to move near the top of that spending list. then, in 2017, we'll see the addition of a club in Atlanta with the vast pockets of Arthur Blank, and possibly a Miami team run by David Beckham. I'll let you venture a guess where they'll end up on the spending list.

What does that mean for the parity of MLS? As collective speeding increases, will the relation of spending and points per game rise with it? Perhaps we are already witnessing that change here in 2014. If the teams from the Stat Hunting spending list are split into conferences and compared to the current league standings, you'll see four out of the top five spending clubs for each conference are currently in playoff positions. Real Salt Lake in the West and Sporting Kansas City in the East are the only two current playoff-positions teams that aren't in the top five in spending for their conferences (although SKC might have climbed that list with the new contracts for Zusi and Besler).

Depending on what the Rapids do in future transfer markets, they might be left behind by even those clubs near them in spending list. Houston, two spot above them, just signed two big names in Luis Garrido and Demarcus Beasley. Columbus were reportedly ready to spend close to a million for Mix Diskerud, while Chicago and New England were/are interesting in snagging Jermaine Jones for big bucks. At least there's always Chivas, right? Wrong. Chances are MLS will want to sell the Chivas club to a lucrative buyer who will rebuild and rebrand the club into a real competitor to the Galaxy, a la NYCFC and RBNY.

The more important question to be answered for this space is: what does that mean for "smaller market" clubs like Colorado? Spend or die? As much as it pains this Rapids writer to say, RSL has been a great example of how you can still have an extremely competitive team on a consistent basis without spending piles of cash. Whether that will be the case ten years from now remains to be seen, however. The only sure thing is that clubs like Colorado will need be be creative in their player acquisitions if they plan to be competitive in the so-called "MLS 3.0" and it needs to start now.

It wouldn't be fun if it wasn't a challenge though, right?